Jim Lee Reflects on Dark Knight's Legacy, Teases New Batman Gig

Thursday marked the public opening of The Batman Exhibit at the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour, a physical realization of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros.' year-long celebration of Batman's 75th anniversary. The two-part showcase at Warner Bros.' Burbank, California studio includes numerous costumes and props from the past 25 years of live-action films at the Warner Bros. Museum, plus multiple Bat-vehicles on display at the nearby Warner Bros. Picture Car Vault -- complete with Batman-themed trams to transport attendees back and forth across the lot.

Two special guests were in attendance at the opening event, both with their own history with the enduring DC Comics superhero: Danny DeVito, who played the Penguin in 1992's "Batman Returns" and performed the duty of lighting the exhibit's Bat-Signal, and Jim Lee, DC Entertainment's co-publisher and illustrator of notable Bat-stories "Hush" and "All Star Batman and Robin." In Lee's opening statement to the press, he told a story from a recent trip with his family to a dude ranch, where he sketched Batman as part of a talent night for attendees -- and was shocked when one of the ranchers didn't recognize the character. There's still work to be done, Lee told the crowd, especially given how the obvious mainstream enthusiasm for a pop culture icon like Batman doesn't always translate to sales in comic books, the medium where the character debuted.

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CBR News spoke Lee at the event about the legacy of Batman (who Lee says is likely the greatest fictional hero, ever), the importance of converting new comic book readers -- the event has its own specially branded reprint of 2011's New 52 "Batman" #1 by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, with a new cover by Ken Lashley -- his love for 2008's "The Dark Knight" and some heavy teases as to what he'll be drawing after the Snyder-written "Superman Unchained ends in September, something he says will be Batman-related, though he says he "actually has several projects" in development -- including collaborations with creators he's never worked with before.

CBR News: Jim, thought your comments at the opening were interesting -- especially your story from the ranch.

Jim Lee: It's a true story! It shocked me. Either that, or it was a horrible drawing. [Laughs] It was very deflating.

You also made the point that a lot of people who love Batman have probably never opened a comic book. How much work do you see as left and how much more can be done to encourage those folks to check out comics?

I think there's an endless amount of work, but I think we have probably the greatest opportunity in the history of comics to reach out to those fans. There are millions and millions of people that know of these characters, that love the mythology, are very well-versed in the origin stories. We just need to tell them, "Hey, there are ongoing adventures. There are new characters, new love interests, new villains, new Batmobiles, introduced on a monthly, weekly basis." I think digital is a big part of that. Having access to everyone's phone, everyone's portable media device, everyone's browser, and being able to get a story out there, talk about how one storyline influenced or inspired somebody's favorite movie arc, and driving that fan to the core source material, for them to check it out. I think once you read that material, you'll get hooked. It's something that's worked for us really well in the past decade or so, and that's part of our strategy going forward -- really build off the momentum off these TV shows, and the great movies, to build our publishing business.

It does seems like a continually vexing thing -- comic book movies, and now TV shows, are getting bigger and bigger but comic book sales aren't increasing at that same rate. Is it ever frustrating from your position?

We actually see some really nice increases when filmmakers talk about the source material, or when the movies open, or when the trailer comes out for a particular movie or TV show. We see lifts. We know it exists, we just need to fine-tune the material and the mechanics of getting that fan to the comics, and making it as simple as possible.

Since we're here at the Batman exhibit, in your long career of illustrating some of the biggest comic characters ever, where does your time with Batman -- "Hush" and "All Star Batman and Robin" -- rank in your favorite runs of your career? How meaningful is the Batman material to you?

It's a big part of my career. When I worked on the X-Men, I thought, "That's what I'll be remembered for." But I think there is an equal number if not more fans that are very taken with my runs on Batman; "Hush" and "All Star Batman and Robin." I've done a lot of fun and crazy stuff with Batman. I designed some Converse Batman shoes, I've come here to talk about this incredible exhibit. I think Batman lends itself to so many different, cool projects. It's not just about the printed page. It's the fun part of the publishing side -- going off, and getting to do these side projects here and there that are fun but aren't necessarily critical to our core business. I think it's a great way of spotlighting who this character is, and trying to bring fans of the character into our world -- the publishing world.

You did say in your remarks earlier that Batman was the greatest hero in all of fiction.

Sure, I think so! He's got to be up there.

But would you say the same thing if we were at a Superman exhibit?

I think Superman is up there as well. Superman and Batman are both up there. I'm serious. How many other fictional characters have had as many stories created about them? Batman's got to be pretty far up on that list, given the number of Batman books that come out, and the number of years of publication. Sherlock Holmes, limited run. James Bond, limited run. Even Harry Potter, as big as that franchise is. There are tens of thousands of stories featuring Batman.

Looking a bit into the future, the last issue of "Superman Unchained" is scheduled for September. Can you share any hints on what your next art gig might be? Is it already in the works?

I will leak something to you: It's something Batman-related. But I actually have several projects lined up. There are several projects I've committed to before that I want to wrap up. But there are some really interesting new projects with some creators I've never worked with before that I hope to line up and announce by the end of the year. But I'm going to have to wrap up "Superman Unchained" first. I don't think the fans want to hear what I'm doing next until after that.

From your stance as co-publisher: I'm noticing Bill Finger's name mentioned by DC a lot more now than before. He's in the press release for this exhibit, and on the cover to the new edition of "Detective Comics" #27 slated to be released in July for "Batman Day." How important is it for DC to get his name out there more? Would you say attitudes have changed regarding him recently?

Speaking specifically of that particular cover, we always list the writers' credits on the cover, and he scripted that issue.

No one is denying Bill's massive contributions to the DC mythology -- not just Batman. It's never been our take that it was only Bob Kane. But the credit by Bob Kane, that's a very specific thing, and has been around since the creation of Batman, over 75 years ago. It's hard to talk about this publicly other than, we love what Bill Finger has contributed to the mythology, and we've always acknowledged and compensated him and his estate for that work.

Do you think there's something more to be done?

If there is, it'd be something I wouldn't discuss with a reporter. [Laughs] I think there's always discussions with creators on all sorts of levels -- not just creators from yesteryear, but current creators. [Tuesday] we rolled out the new compensation plan. So we're always looking at the business, looking for ways to make sure our talent are well-compensated, happy working at DC. Our goal is really to make DC the premier destination for the best talent in the world. To do that, we have to make sure that we are offering the best deals, the best compensation, the best kind of opportunities.

Let's end with this -- what's your favorite Batman movie?

"The Dark Knight." I think you could take Batman and the Joker out of it, and make it a cop drama, and it still works. It's just psychological riveting. I literally was sitting on my chair, going, "What is going to happen next? Is he going to cut that woman at the party? Is the boat going to explode? What are these people going to do?" I was a psychology major, so a lot of that stuff is influenced from all these weird experiments they did in the '60s, like Stanley Milgram experiments -- what will people do in certain situations? I think ["The Dark Knight"] took those kinds of ideas and worked them into the framework of a story, and brought a whole different level of thematic depth to a typical Batman story.

The Batman Exhibit at the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour is now open to the public.

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